The hon. Gentleman knows what the Government inherited, and what they did with that inheritance. The Conservative party will consider what we inherit and what we can salvage from the damage and the mess that the Government are creating.
In the past year, we have asked many questions to which we have received few answers. Even today, the Prime Minister failed to answer questions in terms that could provide comfort to the 2,000 sub-postmasters who have given up a day's work to persuade the Government to think again and identify new streams of income to replace the income that has been lost through the Government's policies. We have debated the matter often in the past, but the Government do not intend to listen. I want to focus on the future, because today's debate is about that. That is why sub-postmasters are here today.
Sub-post offices are businesses and, like any other small business, they need to plan for the future. When the Prime Minister received the sub-postmasters at No. 10 this morning, he pointed out that the Government still have many issues to sort out between now and 2005. However, businesses do not have the luxury of time: sub-postmasters have to make business decisions today, and their bank managers are advising them today. What a luxury it is for a Government to think that such considerations can all be kicked into the long grass while they set up another focus group or advisory committee. We know that in the meantime sub-postmasters are going to the wall.
The Government should be focusing on possible extra streams of income for sub-post offices and prioritising those Government services that might be such a source of income in future. However, as we heard again from the Prime Minister this afternoon, this is all about saving money from the Department of Social Security budget, which is a failure if ever there was one, because the Government have not fulfilled the pledge to cut that budget which they made when they came to office.
The DSS and the DTI are packed with former Treasury Ministers who have rolled over and allowed the Treasury to recoup that £400 million, taking it out of the pockets of sub-postmasters, yet Ministers need four years to think up ideas that will enable post offices to plan for the future. In this matter, as in so many others, the DTI ministerial team do not understand how businesses work, and despite all the wringing of hands by Labour Members, they do not care.
Since the last summer recess, I have visited dozens of sub-post offices throughout the country. Only last month, in Sadberge in the Prime Minister's constituency, I visited the small post office, which sells a few groceries and is clearly important to the local community. With the sub-postmaster and the national president of the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters, I posted a letter from that post office to the Prime Minister at No. 10. He did not reply, and I was rather surprised because I should have thought that even he would have time to recognise that in his constituency sub-postmasters are struggling, as they are throughout the country.
The Prime Minister's office sent my letter to the Minister of State, Department of Social Security, who I see is on the Treasury Bench this afternoon. He sent me a two-page reply in which he comes to the crunch and makes a point that may explain why the Government have been so slow in deciding how to help post offices and how they can contribute to replacing their income streams in response to the smash-and-grab raid by the Treasury. The right hon. Gentleman said:
Therefore, sub-postmasters' remuneration is a matter between POCL—
Post Office Counters Ltd.—
and the post-masters themselves.
In other words, this is nothing to do with the Government, and yet they have decided to end a contract halfway through its duration and, without giving any notice, they are removing a huge chunk of post offices' income, without the slightest idea of how the loss will be made up, jeopardising post offices and accelerating their closure.
According to the federation, 8,000 small businesses are now at risk, representing about 24,000 jobs throughout the country. If 24,000 jobs were at risk in any other industry, one would expect that the Secretary of State would have set up a taskforce by now, but instead the Minister of State, Department of Social Security, writes to me saying that it is not a matter for the Government.